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Interview – Anahita Sarabhai

A photograph of co-founder of QueerAbad, Anahita Sarabhai

Anahita Sarabhai is a performing artist, educator, poet, queer activist, and the co-founder and director of QueerAbad, founded in 2016 with their then partner, Shamini Kothari. QueerAbad is a support group for queer folk and allies, based in Ahmedabad, that focuses on community-building and community-oriented safe space(s). Anahita believes that: “the sharing of personal experiences, being vulnerable, creating art, being joyful, teaching and learning, joining forces, challenging yourself, trying again, not being afraid, accepting love and giving it are a few things that I think help!”

Shikha Aleya (SA): Thank you Anahita, for taking this time out and for sharing your experiences and insights with our readers at In Plainspeak. The theme of this issue being Support Systems and Sexuality, please share with us what the term ‘support system’ means to you. What has been your experience and engagement with support systems in your personal life, and in public and social spaces?

Anahita Sarabhai (AS): As a queer person, it’s hard not to think right away of chosen family. A term that has become relatively well-known by now, but not always understood I find. One of the primary support systems I personally, like many queer folx, depend on, are ones that we develop and nurture over time.

The chosen family for instance has nothing whatsoever to do with blood or biology (to the shock and horror of many Indians) but functions in the way our society pretends all good and true families should! Our chosen families are reminders, really, of what support systems should actually be about: trust, protection, healing, loyalty, understanding, empathy… love even.

We are often forced to depend entirely on our partners, placing an unfair burden on a relationship that is not only already battling against the general odds all relationships do, but also the ones that come with being queer and in a queer relationship. Even so, they often become the ones who save us from drowning when no one else can, because only they understand as well as you; if not them, then who?

For those of us who are visibly queer (whatever the hell that means) or even female (don’t know what that is supposed to mean either, mind you), public spaces become instant sites of potential violence. Unfortunately, this violence is often meted out by the very systems put in place to protect us.

Almost every other time I fly through the Mumbai domestic airport, I find myself being interrogated in the patting-down booth by one, and once five, of the female security officers. They want to know what I am and why. They tell me I’m wrong, but worse (in their eyes) that I am wronging, destroying, our culture!

Whether it’s the police, healthcare providers, the education or the justice system, very often, public support systems are not available or created to protect those of us falling outside the margins. The need, very much, is of unlearning and of an entirely new kind of sensitisation, for all those brought up and working within these structures.

SA: You have lived in different kinds of urban environments, the physical, public and social environment of city spaces such as Ahmedabad, where you grew up, and New York, where you studied. How did these differences affect you? Do you think it is important to assess the status of city planning and infrastructure to widen our understanding of inclusive support systems?

AS: Absolutely. Living in New York, both within the campus of a university that had a majority queer population, and then in the city itself, completely changed how I felt within my own body and how I felt navigating public spaces. Ahmedabad, on the other hand, was and still is difficult for me, even though I’ve spent most of my life here. It has always felt like home and yet, has made me often feel like a bird with clipped wings. I was lucky enough to be born into the kind of privilege that allowed me to grow in many ways, but even so, it wasn’t till I went abroad that I really had the space to become the person I am now. It is exactly the combination of these two experiences, however, that allowed for QueerAbad to be born!

As it turns out, no matter how much you try, it is impossible to separate yourself, who you are and who you become, from the spaces you live within. I think we deeply underestimate the importance and effect physical spaces have on individuals, and ignore in turn how differently it affects each of us. The history of architecture and urban planning has undoubtedly been about meeting the needs of very specific groups of people, often at the cost of the ease and comfort of the rest living there. Think about what it feels like to be entering various kinds of buildings and sitting in different kinds of rooms for instance, some feel cold with all white and metal, some force you to be close to or looking straight at other people, maybe some are all straight lines and sharp angles, others still may feel daunting to even enter let alone sit down in! These spaces directly affect how you feel, carrying whatever identities you do, and  everything you may do in them, from reading a book, enrolling in a class, filing a sexual assault complaint, giving a job interview, asking for a condom or birth control, to applying for your first loan. The pervasive social and cultural norms are even more difficult to change and further complicate the situation. Together this means that every kind of public space, from buses to chai stalls become, at the very least, deeply gendered, and more likely completely unwelcoming and hostile to any marginalised folx who venture out into them.

As a queer, disabled, female identifying person, I have on multiple occasions found myself deeply uncomfortable and wanting to crawl out of my own skin while seeking help! I remember one of the first times I accompanied a friend to the gynaecologist, we were asked to state why we were there and if the patient was married, right in the middle of a bustling waiting room, which was followed by us having to speak to the doctor while the next patient and their husband and mother-in-law sat behind us inside the doctor’s cabin!

To simplify this would be to ask: If a city, at the very least, does not support independent and safe access to usage of all its infrastructure, is it not failing at its most basic purpose? Because the most fundamental responsibility of an established city/country is to be a space that homes and serves the needs of the real people and communities who live in it. Ensuring safety, protection and accessibility, in at least all communal spaces, to a diverse group of inhabitants.

SA: About QueerAbad, how has the collective vision for this group evolved over the past three years, and where does it go from here?

AS:  There has been a lot of learning on our part over the last three years, not only about the community and its wants, but about ourselves, what we believe in and need to work towards. There has also been a lot of reflecting back on the gaps in our understanding and work. Luckily, we’ve never been ones to think of ourselves or any part of what we do as static! The demands and challenges of the world around us change far too quickly and without warning, for us to get too comfortable. The fact that QueerAbad’s team is committed to certain fundamental beliefs about who we are as a group and what we stand for, is what makes this possible. While the underlying force is still that we want to provide a space for queer folx and allies/family members to turn to and depend on, we very much also have integrated into our vision the need for more direct intersectional and more genuinely accessible discussions and resources. How this takes form changes constantly, for example, we have been able to find an ISL (Indian Sign Language) interpreter for all our online discussions and events this year. Last year, it was about focusing on using primarily Hindi/Gujarati and developing smaller events that allowed for greater impact and accessibility.

The second-half of this question is far more difficult to answer, given that in all likelihood, we are going to be dealing with the pandemic and then the post-pandemic world for the next few years. Even just in this year, what and how we do has had to change very quickly. The priorities of the community have shifted and as we know, in times like these, the marginalised communities that in any case experience violence of varying forms, are suddenly dealing with it twice as bad, with half as much support accessible to them. So, for now, we are reinventing what we need to do to support the various people most affected by this crisis while also continuing our resource-creation and awareness-raising.

When it comes down to it, wherever it goes from here, we’re going to try and make sure it comes from a place of empathy, inclusion, and honesty. The rest we’ll figure out on the way!

SA: In a 2018 article about QueerAbad, you have drawn a distinction between social interaction and engagement in the context of queer spaces and community-making. Please share your observations on why it is important to understand this distinction when looking to create safe, inclusive and sexuality affirming spaces across different sectors, such as corporates, NGOs and education.

 AS: Before QueerAbad came into being, the queer spaces that existed here were spaces where queer people (mostly cis men) would socialise with each other – hangout together, have potlucks and parties. These spaces were rampant with backbiting, internal politics and transnegativity and they also reflected the heteronormativity, social biases, stigmatisation, casteism and violence of society and frankly, of the oppressors.

Engagement, on the other hand, requires cognisance of a certain reality, and the willingness to interact with it and brave it. Much like when dealing with privilege, one can get defensive very quickly instead of accepting and trying to navigate it as a fact that we do our best to work with. Engagement is hard and uncomfortable, which is probably why so few do it, and demands that we are reflexive even when we’d rather avoid it. This is also why it is also so desperately important! It challenges us to do better than skim the surface and ignore things. Honestly, I don’t believe any community/movement building or move towards change can happen without the clear integration of a queer intersectional feminist approach anymore. Because within it, engagement and reflection are key.

There are definitely those who would say QueerAbad is too political and ‘serious’ for their liking, and that it doesn’t allow for any fun. Even this thought itself is deeply problematic, in that it assumes that in order to have fun we need to ignore the larger context of our lives and worse still, that it is okay to enact certain kinds of violent and oppressive behaviour in order to enjoy ourselves!

Outside the realm of NGOs and change-making work we see an even bigger lack of engagement, and an opting for tokenism instead! Be it advertising or enthusiastic hiring practices, diversity is a buzzword without any effort being put into understanding or implementing substantial change for the said community. In this case, corporations want to show they are diverse, inclusive, progressive, while simultaneously making large donations to conservative political campaigns, helping fund legislation that further oppresses and takes away autonomy from those very same communities. Take Stephen Ross & RSE Ventures (Equinox, SoulCycle, SnapChat are amongst many others brands they own) for example, who is personally throwing in more money than we can imagine to help Trump get re-elected! Let’s be real, how many companies hiring queer & trans* folx are making sure to sensitise their staff, including their senior-most members beforehand or reviewing their sexual harassment policies? If they do, that would be engagement.

SA: Your initiatives and efforts have spanned QueerAbad meetings and participation in national events, the annual zine Tilt bringing together queer artists across South-Asian countries, your personal presence on social media, your work in performance art, and as an educator as well as an activist. What are the key factors you would highlight that positively influence community-building and support systems across media, online spaces and onsite physical spaces?

AS: What I believe really makes a huge difference, both online and offline, is positive representation. What that means to me personally on one level, is living my life as honestly as I can, without hiding, and by example. I speak up about the things I believe in and care about, don’t shy away when I allow myself to take risks and talk about how that feels with those who are interested to listen. On another level, this means pushing myself to participate in important conversations or campaigns even when I am tired or feeling hopeless about the world, or making an effort to explain my standpoint to a troll even when all I want to do is yell and be furious at them. Our work as individuals bleeds into our community-building efforts, how effective we are when we offer support, and informs the way we imagine and create positive organisations.

A time I am especially reminded of this is in my work as an educator, working primarily with 11th and 12th graders. Education gives us such a rare platform to truly create and teach how to build support systems (as well as good empathetic human beings). Young adults, when treated with honesty and respect, are inquisitive, open to challenges and willing to grow, even though this is a time where most are still struggling with their own identities and who they want to be. The incredibly dynamic space this gives me, and any educator willing to embrace it, to lead by example and really speak from my heart about what matters, weaving it into everything I teach, is difficult to find elsewhere and is impossible to do without building trust, mutual respect and honesty. Almost everything I fight for and want for the world, I get to put into practice here. Some of the young folx I have had the pleasure of teaching have made me more proud and given me more hope as well as courage, than all of my other work combined.

Otherwise, the sharing of personal experiences, being vulnerable, creating art, being joyful, teaching and learning, joining forces, challenging yourself, trying again, not being afraid, accepting love and giving it are great places to start and something we can all do!

Oh, and reminding one another in all these spaces, that no action or thought is too small, no contribution towards change insignificant, as long as we keep at it.

Cover Image: Author

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